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By Donald V. Calamia
ANN ARBOR - If this sounds like the plot from a unique, new comedy, it is: A gay couple, together for decades, finds their relationship in turmoil when a heretofore unknown daughter and granddaughter enter their lives. Yet as Shakespeare once wrote, "All the world's a stage," and in this instance, that's true - since the plot of Geoffrey & Jeffrey was inspired by the real-life experiences of Ann Arbor couple Jim Posante and Charles Sutherland.
"I had been friends with Jim and Charlie for a long time," explained playwright Kim Carney from the lobby of Performance Network Theatre, where her latest play will open in previews Nov. 6. "And one night (last September), I was sitting with them at a table just listening to them talk to each other. They were arguing about had they met in 1972 or 1973. They were so funny and loving, and I thought to myself, 'Gee. I wish everyone could know a couple like Jim and Charlie. They would see that a gay relationship is no different than a straight relationship that's gone on for so many years like that.'"
That conversation stuck with Carney on the drive home. "I don’t think there's ever been a play like that," she remembers thinking. "So then I thought, 'What could be the catalyst, or the conflict?' And then I thought of Jim's own story."
Posante and Sutherland, together for 36 years at the time of Posante's fatal stroke this past January, were longtime fixtures in the theater community. A shocking phone call late in life revealed a secret neither expected: Posante had fathered a daughter while in his carefree, younger days. And double-shocking was the additional news that he was also a grandfather.
"Of course, in the play, [the characters] are very different than in real life. But that's where the idea came from," Carney said.
Carney, who first worked with Posante in 2003 when he directed the award-winning world premiere of The Home Team at Performance Network, worked quickly and had the first draft of the play readied in a month. "Once I get an idea, I really latch on to it," she said. "I'm a fast worker."
The first reading of the script was held in mid-December, and both Posante and Sutherland were present. "They absolutely loved it," Carney recalled. "They laughed so hard, and Jim was really looking forward to direct it."
But that was not to be. Three weeks later, 59-year-old Posante passed away.
Posante's sudden death made it difficult to continue the project, Carney said. "But David (Wolber, the theater's artistic director) talked to Charlie, and he wanted us to do it."
So with Sutherland’s encouragement, the project moved forward as scheduled.
Stepping into the usually comfortable role of director wasn't so easy this time for Wolber, a longtime friend of Posante's. "I'd worked with him a few times to think about how he'd approach things. I haven't even attempted to do it like Jim would do it. We're different kinds of directors. But he's been very present," Wolber said.
What helped draw Wolber into the work is his affection for the script and its four characters. "All of them are very funny, but they care very deeply," he explained. "It struck me how all these relationships - between all four characters - are really rich and incredibly layered. We've been finding (new things about them) every day."
It's that continuing process of discovery that both the director and the playwright find so much fun when creating a brand new show. "I don't know of many people who can write comedy as well as Kim. I just don't. In some ways, the layers we're discovering are a lot like what's in Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams - they're heavily layered, but they're really funny. And that's the joy of working on not just a NEW play, but a really GOOD new play," Wolber said.
Plus, Wolber added, Geoffrey & Jeffrey offers audiences a look at a class of people who rarely are presented on stage: the culturally and financially challenged, represented by the daughter and the granddaughter. "There aren't many plays that deal with people who aren't in the middle class," he noted, "and this one does in a really smart, clever, funny - and touching and meaningful - way. That's another strength this play has: It's not just about jokes; it's about true human interaction, and it includes people who we don't see a lot of stories about."
The teenage granddaughter is a particularly tricky role, Carney and Wolber agree - for reasons better left unrevealed for now. "But I think it's a great breakthrough role for Heidi Bennett," Wolber teased.
Another challenge will be for the two lead actors to convince the audience every night that they are indeed a long-term, committed gay couple - which may not be easy, since Jim Porterfield, an arborist built like a lumberjack, defies most stereotypes. "That might be part of the reason I was cast," Porterfield chuckled. "But there's a lot of me in it. There are a lot of similarities between Jeffrey and me."
Playing 'gay' won't be a problem for the popular, tough-as-nails actor. "It's one of the funniest scripts I've ever read, and that's saying a lot. I did Escanaba in da Moonlight, which ran for a year and a half. This script is in that class. Of course, the key is to say the words and don't try to manipulate the timing. When you've got a great script, you just say the words and do the things."
The real test will be not breaking up every time he's on stage with fellow Geoffrey, Tom Whalen. "He's a quirky, funny guy," Porterfield said of his co-star. "The improv stuff and the things he comes up with - it's a challenge sticking to the task. It takes a lot of focus not to laugh out loud at some of the things he’s doing. He's going to be terrific in this."
Although Geoffrey & Jeffrey tells the story of a gay couple, Carney has targeted her script to a universal audience. "I wish all straight people would see it, if they don't know any long-term gay couples. I want people to come away with a different definition of what 'family' means. That really comes to play in this: not just bloodlines or traditional roles, but loving and taking responsibility for someone else."
Wolber agrees. "It does have a powerful, uplifting message that not everyone NEEDS to hear, but WANTS to hear. This isn't a play that preaches; it's a play that lifts people up.”
Plus, Porterfield predicts, "You'll laugh your ass off, and cry your eyes out."
The comedy previews Nov. 6-9 & 13 ($10-$32), then runs Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 14 through Dec. 28 at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Tickets: $15-$41. For information or reservations: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org.
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